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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Walton of Detchant Lord Walton of Detchant Crossbench 6:04 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest as the patron of a considerable number of neurological charities and as someone who is the life president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. I shall confine my remarks to new Section 4A in this Bill. However, I wholly agree that for anyone to try to introduce amendments to try to amend the Abortion Act would be a mistake, as they would inevitably cloud the important revisions of an extremely vital Bill.

My baptism of fire, when I first became a Member of your Lordships' House in 1989, was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, later to become an Act, which allowed experiments on the human embryo up to 14 days after fertilisation under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. That was something with which I wholly agreed because individuation of the human embryo did not, in my opinion, begin until the primitive streak appeared at 14 days. I spoke about my interest in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an X-linked recessive disease passed on by female carriers to their sons, and said that we would be likely in due course to be able to take an ovum from a carrier woman, to fertilise it in vitro, to allow it to develop into an embryo and to remove a single cell to determine whether the gene for muscular dystrophy was present—then, if it was, to allow the embryo to degenerate or, if it was not, to implant it, thus allowing these women to have normal, non-carrier daughters and non-dystrophic boys. In fact, that hope has now become a reality. This morning I chaired a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine on muscular dystrophy research to learn that pre-implantation diagnosis of that dreadful disease has now become really feasible and is preventing the birth of children with the disease.

The Bill at that time—and the Act that followed—was designed to improve the treatment of infertility and to prevent the birth of children with serious genetic disease. It did not allow embryos to be used to generate cells for the treatment of human disease. At that time there were those who said that to discard embryos carrying abnormal genes was tantamount to killing a human being. However, I remind the House that in the course of normal human fertilisation some four or five ova are fertilised in the uterus and float free in the uterus before one implants in the wall to produce a foetus and subsequently a child. If two are implanted, that produces non-identical twins. All the rest of those fertilised ova are flushed down the toilet. So millions and millions of human embryos are lost every day in life.

The Government introduced regulations in 2001 to amend the Act to allow embryos and stem cells derived from them to be available for the treatment of human disease, legalising therapeutic but not reproductive cloning. Stem cells have a purely potential ability, meaning that they are produced from embryos which, for instance, become spare in the course of in vitro fertilisation programmes. As my noble friend Lord Alton said, adult stem cells have become increasingly important in research and so, too, have stem cells derived from the umbilical cord. Indeed, the Anthony Nolan Trust has, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, established a national cord blood bank so as to be able to collect specimens of umbilical cord blood for the creation of such stem cells. All such cells, if they are used for implantation to the tissue of another individual, are donor cells which produce an immunological response, which inevitably requires suppression of that immune response.

This new technique of cloning using the interspecies embryo does not need that to occur because the cell is taken from the skin, perhaps, of an individual suffering from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease or one of the other serious neurological disorders with which we are concerned. It could be implanted into a donor ovum from which the nucleus has been removed. However, as the noble Baroness said earlier today, it is not easy to obtain ova from even the most public-spirited of women. Now, if one can use animal cells to produce the type of capsule or framework in which the nucleus from that cell can be implanted, stem cells derived from that cell will be immunologically compatible with the host into whom the subsequent stem cells will be implanted. That overcomes the difficulties arising as a result of some use of other cells such as the adult stem cells to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred.

I must mention in passing the crucial importance of mitochondrial disease. Some 99.9 per cent of human DNA resides in the nucleus of the cell. About 0.1 per cent of DNA resides in the mitochondria, which are tiny structures in the cytoplasm of the cell outside the nucleus but within the cell membrane. These structures are concerned with energy production and metabolism within the cell. Fifty-four genes have been isolated within mitochondria and a large number of mitochondrial diseases have been described. I have seen these in the course of my professional career—diseases that cause epilepsy, paralysis, dementia and a whole variety of devastating conditions.

Since mitochondria exist only in the ovum and not in the sperm, mitochondrial diseases are inevitably transmitted by every affected woman to all her children. Now, it is becoming feasible to take an ovum from a woman carrying abnormal mitochondrial genes. One can take a donor ovum from which you have removed the nucleus and put the nucleus into that donor ovum, which has normal mitochondria in the cytoplasm, and then allow that to be fertilised by the partner's sperm, thus allowing these women to have normal children. That is not yet feasible, but licences are already being awarded for the animal research and one of my former colleagues, Professor Doug Turnbull at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is already doing that crucial animal research, just as others are doing work on the interspecies embryo in that particular centre.

I commend to you an article by Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics that was published in the Parliamentary Monitor in October. He said that creating these interspecies embryos as a,

"source of disease-specific stem cells has enormous significance ... First, it is a leap toward self- transplantation ... one day we may be able to take a skin cell from a patient with leukaemia, clone it, derive embryonic stem cells, produce blood stem cells, and transfer the blood cells back as a transplant after chemotherapy".

They could also,

"be used to study any disease in a culture dish in a radically new way to create 'cellular models of disease'. Cloning a single skin cell from a patient with a disease could be used to produce inexhaustible amounts of cells and tissue with that disease", which could be used not only for research but could help later in transplantation and the treatment of disease.

This is a crucial Bill. It carries enormous potential benefits for human health. This field of embryo research is one in which the United Kingdom leads the world. The Bill maintains and indeed greatly enhances that position. It is our duty to generations in the future to see this Bill enter into law.